Recap Part I: #PRStudChat Discusses PR Education & Learning

A Guest Post By Ai Zhang, Professor, Stockton University

“To learn without thinking, one will be lost in his learning. To think without learning, one will be imperiled.” – Confucius

PRSTUDCHATLearning and reflecting are my daily staples. After all, I am an educator, right? I have been teaching communication/public relations courses for a decade, if you include the earlier years when I was a Teaching Assistant at Syracuse University and the University of Maryland. Compared to many other seasoned educators, I still have a lot to learn and reflect upon. However, if I may, one thing that I learned about teaching over the years is that to be a good teacher, one has to be a lifelong student. Especially in today’s digital age, there are always a plethora of things to learn. Sounds intimidating? Yes, for sure! However, we all know the famous story of the race between a studious turtle and a lazy rabbit. To me, the ever-changing PR landscape is like a rabbit, while we are all like turtles crawling along to catch up. As long as we don’t stop walking or learning, even turtles can win the race and be ahead of the game.

Since graduate school, a question that has been in my mind is whether or not undergraduate PR education is teaching students the necessary skill- and knowledge-set to succeed in today’s job market. How can I improve my teaching to better train my students? What are the latest tools and trends that I should be bringing my classes and curricula? What else should I be doing to help students excel? These are some of the underlying motives that pushed me reach out to Deirdre Breakenridge to discuss the possibility of hosting a #PRStudChat with an exclusive focus on the status quo of undergraduate PR education. I was delighted when Deirdre said YES. I was dancing in the room with my four-year-old boy. On October 13, 2015, I joined an invigorating #PRStudChat with my fellow educators, students, and professionals about Teaching and Learning in Public Relations. I am going to share what I learned from this informative chat in two separate blog posts because there’s a lot to be covered.

What courses does/did your school’s PR major offer?

The Commission on Public Relations Education developed a five-core-course requirement for schools that offer undergraduate public relations education. If you use this as the requirement, the good news is that public relations curricula across the board seem to meet the requirement. Most schools offer the basic courses such as Introduction to PR, Writing, Research, Campaigns, Case Studies, and Crisis Communications. When it comes to electives, the not-so-good news is, that the breadth and depth of PR programs are not so standardized across the board and the overall quality does vary a lot. Whereas some schools do not have the luxury to offer students a wide range of electives, some other schools offered Communication Law, Social Media, Corporate Social Responsibility, (Advanced) Public Speaking, Programming, (Digital) Graphics/Production, Fundraising and Nonprofit Management, Professionalism, Sports and Entertainment, Tourism and Hospitality, and Health PR. I agree wholeheartedly with Natalie Tindall’s tweet, “For students at universities with many PR classes, you’re lucky. Some students don’t get depth of PR classes in university curriculum.”

What classes outside of traditional PR classes are helpful for a future PR pro? 

The most noticeable difference between traditional and today’s new-age PR practice is probably the digital divide. In today’s digital world, every digital skill is an asset or maybe even a must to students’ career success. It is interesting to note that social media has not yet entered mainstream PR curricula. Among programs that do incorporate digital training, social media is typically listed as an elective. However, as student Kyle Wallace pinpointed, “Social media should really be a core in every program! I took it as an elective.” Can I high five that a million times? As someone who teaches most of my school’s PR courses, I can say that students are NOT as digitally and technologically savvy as we assumed. If we don’t train students these important digital skills while they are in school, who else can train them? As Karen Freberg, a social media professor and guru, tweeted, social media class “can serve as a bridge for other majors like sports, business, etc.” She raises a great point — once students start working, they will need to interact and work with people from all different disciplines; they need that breadth in their spectrum of knowledge.

Some other non-traditional courses mentioned by the participants were: analytics; business operations and finance; psychology courses; statistics; marketing courses; organizational behavior; branding/brand management; graphic design; project management; customer service; ethics; sociology; psychology; language/writing; English literature; philosophy; neuroscience; visual storytelling; and video production.

How has your PR education prepared you for your career?

I have to say that the real PR education for me started after I earned my doctoral degree in PR. Sounds ironic? Don’t get me wrong. My doctoral study definitely laid a solid foundation for me in terms theory and research. However, it is through doing, teaching, getting involved in PRSSA, managing campaigns, handling crises, and interacting with professionals that I truly learned what PR means, fell in love with the field, and became a loyal advocate of it. I resonate with what Valerie Simon tweeted, “A good PR education can change the way you research, question, plan and measure!” So true!

For an applied field such as PR, learning does not have to happen in classrooms; nor does it end as formal education approaches a finishing line. Quite the contrary, at least based on my experience, the end of formal education opens a new chapter in real learning, i.e., lifelong learning. I call this a student mindset, which means that we also have to be resilient to change, striving to be a change initiator – or at least a change follower – as opposed to a resistor. When something new is here, be excited about it, play with it, and embrace it. As educators, maybe we won’t be pioneers in the technology world. However, we can be the change in our classroom. We can always give a new tweak to how we teach an old class. I love changing how I teach an existing class by adding new elements, mostly digital elements nowadays. Even for the basic research class, as Patrick Merle challenged, educators “need to move away from the traditional survey-focus group content.” Agreed wholeheartedly!

What are the strengths and weaknesses of contemporary PR programs?

 It shouldn’t be surprising that students like PR training that is practical as opposed to purely theoretical. They want to learn through hands-on projects and internships. After all, PR folks are called practitioners, right? If you are looking for ways to improve your school’s PR program, here are several things that people like the most about their respective schools’ PR programs: community engagement, service-learning, active PRSSA chapters, guest speakers, group project, professor connections, and adjuncts.

Two aspects stood out to me here: professor connections and adjuncts. Professors are students’ first assets! As professors, we have to constantly learn and network to enrich students’ learning and expand their professional networks. I cannot overemphasize the importance of professors’ professional connections. I have benefited tremendously through attending my school and other local schools’ PRSSA events and networking with professionals via social media, for example, participating in this awesome #PRStudChat. Doing these things are “time consuming” if you want to think that way. However, the benefits far outweigh the time invested. I have met so many remarkable professionals through blog posts I have written, or a comment that I made on someone else’s blog, or a twitter chat in which I participated. Once you build a relationship with them, they are willing to network with you and share their experience with your students. For example, Carrie Morgan, an experienced PR pro, decided to host a twitter chat with my entire Intro to PR class this semester. How awesome is that? As Deirdre Breakenridge perfectly described, social media brings professors and students together! We need more of that type of collaborative learning! Because in real life, students do not only work with students; they work with everyone!

In terms of adjuncts, Kirk Hazlett said it perfectly, “Adjuncts bring “freshness” of profession…’Here’s what I did TODAY’ versus ‘Here’s what the book says’.” When you share something you did, you are more credible, persuasive, and of course more successful at teaching your students. I feel so honored to interact with seasoned practitioners who are also adjuncts, such as Jason Mollica and Deirdre Breakenridge. They are invaluable assets to PR education. I cannot imagine teaching a PR class without bringing in any professionals as guest speakers.

Weaknesses: Students are hungry for courses on social media, social media analytics and measurement, digital graphic design, and everything else that is digital. A few courses that got favored are: Social Media Strategy and Tactics, Grassroots Digital Advocacy, and Visual Strategies in Strategic Communication. From faculty’s perspective, there should be more emphasis on research, experimental designs, causality training…” The bottom line is, PR students should NOT be afraid of numbers. For all of us, to push forward PR education, as Bonnie Riechert tweeted, “We should continue to evolve the curriculum, adding new courses and content.” To that end, faculty members need to sound a concerted voice that says that academia needs to allow faster change. As I always say, hierarchy kills innovation!

Stay tuned for Part II of the #PRStudChat PR Education & Learning recap, which is coming soon!

imgresAi Zhang received her M.A. in Communication from Syracuse University, and her Ph.D. in Communication/Public Relations from University of Maryland. She graduated in 2009 and then started teaching at Stockton University in New Jersey. She started the PR track at the school and developed most of its PR courses. Professor Zhang is also the faculty advisor for her school’s PRSSA Chapter and its newly launched student-run PR firm.